Expert Tips For Storing and Sorting Hay

Advice from the experts on how to properly store hay bales, as well as get the right hay to each animal you’re feeding.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Jamie Cole

Twice a day, every day. That’s how often the employees at Full Circle Jerseys are tasked with feeding approximately 4,000 dairy cows and replacement heifers. They do so with a ration that is specifically designed for the cows’ age, productivity and stage of lactation.

So, to help get the right dairy feed to each cow, Full Circle owners Sieto and Misty Mellema not only have animals divided into pens based on their current needs, but they also have every load of forage tested and cataloged into a computer program as it goes into storage. Whether it’s alfalfa they purchased, or wheat, oat or grass hay they grew on their Dalhart, Texas, farm, big square bales are identified and placed into stacks based on cutting, feed value, etc.

“It’s quality in, quality out—especially with a Jersey cow,” Sieto Mellema says of his herd. “So, it’s important you provide a good, clean, quality feed.”

5 Tips for Better Storage

As with any livestock operation, the Mellemas’ hay needs to be preserved to prevent losses of dry matter and nutritional quality. The single biggest factor in that preservation is, of course, storage. So, with that in mind, we offer the following five tips:

Storage Tip #1: Understanding Types of Loss

A good way to begin this discussion is with a review of the two basic types of losses that affect hay: 1) dry matter, which refers to a decrease in the physical amount of hay present and available for consumption; and 2) nutritional quality, which refers to the specific nutritional value of the hay, such as total digestible nutrients or crude protein. A number of factors can cause both categories of loss, but moisture—whether the bale is stored with too much of it, it comes from precipitation or wicks up from the ground—is one of the main causes.

Storage Tip #2: Managing Moisture

The first step to preserving quality hay, according to Dan Undersander, Extension forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin, is baling it at the right moisture level—even if it means leaving bales outside to “sweat” a few days before going into tight storage. Consider the following guidelines for moisture limits: large square bales should have no more than 16% moisture when baled, round bales no more than 18%, and small square bales no more than 22%.

If, he says, large square bales are put “at 20 or 22% moisture, then we will have microbial growth, and the microbes are using up the starches and the sugars. They’re giving off heat and carbon dioxide, and we’re basically losing energy from that forage.”

Storage Tip #3: Get It Off the Ground

Next, says Undersander, is keeping bales off the ground to prevent them from wicking moisture up from the soil. For instance, in the case of round bales, “one of the things a lot of people don’t realize is that a couple of inches of exterior is a very high percentage of the bale,” he says. “So, if you have a 5-foot-diameter bale and you lose 4 inches around the edge, that’s 30% of the bale that you’re losing. Anything to break the contact of the bale with the soil is truly beneficial to keep that bale from taking up moisture from the soil. That means putting bales on boards, tires, asphalt, plastic or some other barrier to limit water uptake from the ground.”

Storage Tip #4: Get It Covered

As you would protect the bottoms of the bales, it’s also best to protect them at the top, and, if possible, on the sides. There are two very distinct reasons, says Undersander, depending on where you live. In hotter, more arid climates, it’s important to cover hay, mainly to protect it from solar radiation and to keep it from getting too dry and brittle. In areas where rain is a concern, producers need to cover the hay to keep the rain from going into the top layer of bales, and, again, causing the moisture content to increase and mold to grow.

The best solution is to store bales in a barn, whether they’re round bales or big square bales. That’s particularly true in wetter climates. As Don Ball, forage specialist at Auburn University, has often stated: “You’re paying for a hay barn, whether you build it or not.” The next best alternative, of course, is to cover the bales with a tarp or plastic.

Storage Tip #5: Sorting Bales by Quality

Undersander echoes the need to sort and stack bales according to forage quality, noting: “You might want to feed higher-quality forage to beef cattle in January and February, when they have a higher energy need, and as they’re nearing the end of pregnancy. Likewise, you might use a lower quality for dry cows. If you store by quality, then you can … make best use of the energy and protein that you have in those bales.”

Sieto Mellema agrees. “If I give a milk cow less quality than she needs or feed her hay with a little mold in it, I’ll see a drop in milk production for the next 24 hours … or maybe more,” he says. “And, considering the high cost of hay, it’s important we get everything we paid for or worked for ourselves.”

For additional bale storage tips, see “4 Best Tips for Storing Hay.”